What Veterans Must Know About Duty Requirements In Processing VA Disability Claims

Duty to Assist

In requiring the VA benefits system to be a “non-adversarial” process, Congress has imposed on VA a “duty to assist” claimants. The most significant VA duties are discussed below. In general, VA is required to notify a claimant of what information is required to obtain an award of the benefits requested. VA also has a duty to obtain a veteran’s service records, service medical records, VA treatment records, and any other government records (such as Social Security Administration records) that reasonably may contain information supporting the claim. These duties significantly ease the burden on claimants in assembling the evidence needed to support a claim.

The duty to assist, however, does not mean a claimant has no responsibility for his or her claim. Even if a claim satisfies the minimum threshold for the duty to assist to apply, the law requires VA only to “assist” a veteran with the development of the evidence in support of his or her claim: there are limits on what VA has to do to help a veteran. A claimant seeking a benefit, still has a responsibility to be an active participant in the claims process if he or she wants to be successful.

VA has other duties that can be helpful to claimants in certain circumstances. If an award is made, VA has a duty to look for ways to maximize the benefit paid to a claimant based on the evidence. This means that VA has to consider all the possible diagnostic codes that could apply and base an award on the code or codes that result in the highest payment. VA also has to identify and grant awards for “inferred” claims, which are claims that the evidence supports but the claimant did not specifically request. Both of these duties make it easier for veterans to receive the greatest benefit possible without having to be an expert in VA law.

A claimant also needs to keep in mind that, the duty to assist aside, VA also has responsibilities to follow the law and to prevent improper awards. As a practical matter, this means that the system eventually becomes “adversarial” when VA decides that an award cannot be granted. Further, the huge backlog of claims has strained VA’s resources and continues to result in a high rate of errors. For these reasons, claimants should remain actively involved in their claims and maintain a healthy skepticism of VA decisions throughout the process to avoid a wrongful denial.

Duty to Provide Notice

A claimant has an initial responsibility to file a substantially complete application. If he or she does not do so, VA does not have to process the application. VA does, however, have a “duty to notify” the claimant of the information needed to make the application complete enough to process.

Although exactly what makes an application substantially complete is not defined, VA usually requires at least the following minimum information for a substantially complete application: (1) claimant’s name and, if not the veteran, the relationship to the veteran upon whom the application is based; (2) the medical condition(s) claimed; and (3) the claimants signature. Pension claims also require a statement of income before VA will begin processing the claim. Whatever the reason, if VA determines that an application is not substantially complete, VA has to notify the claimant of the information that it believes is needed to complete the application.

Once a substantially complete application has been submitted, VA has a second “duty to notify.” This time VA has to tell the claimant (1) what information is needed to substantiate the claim, (2) what part of that information VA will try to obtain; and (3) what information that the claimant is responsible for providing to VA. Each time a new issue or claim arises, VA has the same duty to notify the claimant of what information is needed and who (VA or claimant) is responsible for obtaining it.

Section 5103A notification requirements cannot be met through a combination of unrelated decisional and postdecisional communications.  Mayfield v. Nicholson, 444 F.3d 1328, 1335 (Fed. Cir. 2006).  Section 5103 requires VCAA notification to be issued “prior to the initial decision of the claim, not afterwards.”  Id. at 1333. 

The Court must assess the Board’s notification analysis as a whole to adequately determine whether a factual finding regarding 38 U.S.C. § 5103(a) notification had been made by the Board in the first instance.  Prickett, 20 Vet. App. at 375-76; Yarbrough v. Nicholson, 21 Vet. App. 512 (2006).  The Court reviews the Board’s determination that VA satisfied its duty to assist under the “clearly erroneous” standard of review.  Nolen v. Gober, 14 Vet. App. 183, 184 (2000).

Duty to Obtain Records

The VA is required to make “reasonable efforts” to obtain a claimant’s military service records, VA medical records, and other pertinent federal records without being asked to do so. If a claimant requests assistance in obtaining records from private physicians and hospitals, VA is required to try to obtain those records as well. However, VA is not required to continue to request or wait for records if it determines that the records do not exist or further efforts to obtain the records would be futile. In addition, VA will not pay for obtaining private medical records.

As a practical matter, VA usually can obtain records from government agencies and the military without significant problems. There are situations, however, where VA does not properly request documents or the documents have been lost or destroyed by another agency. VA must inform a claimant of its failure to obtain relevant records. A claimant can and should submit his or her copy of relevant documents even if VA is technically responsible for obtaining the information because the lack of relevant information can result in denial of an otherwise valid claim.

“The Secretary shall make reasonable efforts to assist a claimant in obtaining evidence necessary to substantiate the claimant’s claim for a benefit under a law administered by the Secretary.”  38 U.S.C. § 5103A(a)(1).  Gardner v. Shinseki, 22 Vet. App. 415, 421 (2009) (“Accordingly, the Secretary’s duty to assist applies to all claimants, regardless of whether they have established veteran status.”).  VA is statutorily required to “make as many requests as are necessary” to obtain a veteran’s relevant service records in the custody of a Federal department or agency.  38 C.F.R. § 3.159(c)(2); see Moore v. Shinseki, 555 F.3d 1369, 1374 (Fed. Cir. 2009); see also Murincsak v. Derwinski, 2 Vet. App. 363, 373 (1992) (“There is a continuing obligation upon the VA to assist the veteran in developing the facts of his claim throughout the entire administrative adjudication.”).

Upon receipt of a complete or substantially complete application for benefits and prior to an initial unfavorable decision on a claim by an agency of original jurisdiction, the Secretary is required to inform the claimant of the information and evidence not of record that:

(1)   is necessary to substantiate the claim,

(2)   the Secretary will seek to obtain, if any, and

(3)   the claimant is expected to provide, if any, and to request that the claimant provide any evidence in his possession that pertains to the claim.  

See 38 U.S.C. § 5103(a); Pelegrini v. Principi, 18 Vet. App. 112, 119, 121 (2004); Quartuccio v. Principi, 16 Vet. App. 183, 187 (2002); 38 C.F.R. § 3.159(b). This duty includes making “reasonable efforts to obtain relevant records (including private records) that the claimant adequately identifies to the Secretary and authorizes the Secretary to obtain.”  38 U.S.C. § 5103A(b)(1).  If the Secretary is unable to obtain all of the records sought, the Secretary must provide notice to the claimant that “identif[ies] the records that the Secretary was unable to obtain,” “briefly explain[s] the efforts that the Secretary made to obtain those records,” and “describe[s] any further action to be taken by the Secretary with respect to the claim.” 38 U.S.C. § 5103A(b)(2).  These requirements also apply to private documents. 

But, the “duty to assist in the development and adjudication of a claim is not a one-way street.”  Wamhoff v. Brown, 8 Vet. App. 517, 522 (1996).  VA’s duty to assist includes making “reasonable efforts to assist a claimant in obtaining evidence necessary to substantiate the claimant’s claim for a benefit.”  38 U.S.C. §§  5103A(a)(1), (b); cf.  The Board’s determination whether VA fulfilled its duty to assist generally is a finding of fact that the Court reviews under the “clearly erroneous” standard of review.  See Nolen v. Gober, 14 Vet. App. 183, 184 (2000); Gilbert v. Derwinski, 1 Vet. App. 49, 52 (1990). 

Duty to Obtain Lost or Missing Records

VA’s duty in cases involving lost records is to seek out alternative sources for obtaining the lost records.  Cromer v. Nicholson, 455 F.3d 1346, 1351 (Fed. Cir. 2006).  Pursuant to 38 U.S.C. section 5103A, the Secretary is required to “make reasonable efforts to assist a claimant in obtaining evidence necessary to substantiate the claimant’s claim for benefits.”  38 U.S.C. §§ 5103A(a), (b). Where a claimant’s records are lost or destroyed, VA has a “heightened” duty to assist the claimant that includes advising him that his records were lost, advising him to submit alternative forms of evidence to support his claim, and assisting him in obtaining his alternative evidence.  Washington v. Nicholson, 19 Vet. App. 362, 370 (2005); Dixon v. Derwinski, 3 Vet. App. 261, 263 (1992). 

However, the Court cannot grant an appellant’s claim solely because his records were lost because that remedy “would amount to a judicial amendment of the statutory duty to assist-a measure beyond the power of this court.”  Id. at 1351.  A veteran bears the burden of showing error on this issue.  See Hilkert v. West, 12 Vet. App. 145, 151 (1999) (holding that the appellant bears the burden of demonstrating error); Berger v. Brown, 10 Vet. App. 166, 169 (1997) (holding that an appellant “always bears the burden of persuasion on appeals to this Court”).

When medical records are lost, it warrants a heightened duty by the Secretary and the Board to assist and explain the Board’s findings.  See Vazquez-Flores, supra; see also Cromer v. Nicolson, 455 F.3d 1346, 1351 (Fed. Cir. 2006) (“[I]n cases involving lost records, the Board has a heightened duty to explain its findings.”); Daye v. Nicholson, 20 Vet. App. 512, 515 (2006) (where appellant’s records not available, the duty to assist and fully explain reasons and bases is heightened); Stegall, supra; see also Russo v. Brown, 9 Vet. App. 46, 51 (1996) (holding that the Court’s caselaw establishes a “heightened duty” to assist when the appellant’s medical records have been lost or destroyed); Cuevas v. Principi, 3 Vet. App. 542, 548 (1992) (holding that the Board’s duty to assist a claimant in developing his claim is heightened in cases in which the appellant’s SMRs are lost or destroyed “and includes the obligation to search for alternate medical records”); Moore v. Derwinski, 1 Vet. App. 401, 406 (1991) (holding that VA’s duty to assist is “particularly great in light of the unavailability of the veteran’s exit examination and full Army medical records”).

Duty to Provide Medical Examination 

VA is required to schedule a compensation and pension (C&P) examination for a claimant at the nearest VA medical center unless there is a good reason for not doing so, such as when an expert is required that is not available at the nearest facility or the examination is with a VA medical contractor. VA, however, does not have to provide a medical examination in all cases. The standard for providing a medical examination is usually not difficult to meet. VA, however, can refuse to provide a VA medical examination unless there is some reasonable possibility that an examination will provide information that could be useful in deciding the claim.

In general, to obtain a C&P examination a claimant needs to show a current medical condition, some evidence of potential connection to service, and that available medical evidence is not sufficient to allow a decision on the claim. In other words, the claimant must first provide some reason for VA to believe that a medical examination would be helpful in resolving the claim. A claimant’s own statement that his or her symptoms have continued since service or a previous medical examination report can be enough of a reason.

Should VA schedule a medical examination, a claimant has a duty to report for the examination. In most cases, if the claimant does not show up for an examination, the claim(s) associated with that examination can be denied without further development. There are some reasons for failing to show for a scheduled examination, such as illness or urgent family emergency, that can be excused. Even so, claimants should make every effort to reschedule an examination in advance to avoid problems.

As part of his duty to assist, the Secretary must “make reasonable efforts to assist a claimant in obtaining evidence necessary to substantiate the claimant’s claim for a benefit” including a medical examination.  38 U.S.C. § 5103A(a)(1).  The Secretary must provide a medical examination or obtain a medical opinion “when such an examination or opinion is necessary to make a decision on the claim.”  38 U.S.C. § 5103A(d)(1).  VA must provide a medical opinion or examination if the information and evidence of record does not contain sufficiently competent medical evidence to decide the claim, but there is:

(1)   competent evidence of a current disability or persistent or recurrent symptoms of a disability;

(2)   evidence establishing that an event, injury, or disease occurred in service or establishing certain diseases manifesting during an applicable presumptive period for which the claimant qualifies; and

(3)   an indication that the disability or persistent or recurrent symptoms of a disability may be associated with the veteran’s service or with another service-connected disability.

McLendon v. Nicholson, 20 Vet. App. 79, 81 (2006); see also 38 C.F.R. § 3.159(c)(4)(i).  The requirement that the evidence indicate that a condition “may be associated” with service establishes a “low threshold.”  McLendon, 20 Vet. App. at 83. 

When deciding whether an examination is necessary, the Secretary shall consider the evidence of record, “taking into consideration all information and lay or medical evidence (including statements of the claimant).”  38 U.S.C. § 5103A(d)(2).  “The Board’s ultimate conclusion that a medical examination is not necessary pursuant to section 5103A(d)(2) is reviewed under the ‘arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law’ standard of review.”  McLendon, 20 Vet. App. at 81.

Generally, section 5103A notice must be given on “all five elements of a claim for service connection,” which include:

 (1) veteran status;

(2)   existence of disability;

(3)   service connection of disability;

(4)   degree of disability; and

(5)   effective date of disability.  

38 U.S.C. § 5103(a); Dingess v. Nicholson, 19 Vet. App. 473, 487 (2006) (consolidated with Hartman v. Nicholson, No. 02-1506), aff’d in part sub nom. Hartman v. Nicholson, 483 F.3d 1311 (Fed.Cir.2007)); see also D’Amico v. West, 209 F.3d 1322, 1327 (Fed. Cir. 2000) (noting the five elements of a claim for service connection).

Duty to Identify Inferred Claims

Once VA has gathered all the reasonably obtainable information, including information submitted by the claimant, VA must decide whether or not to grant an award of benefits. In making that decision, VA must consider three other duties owed to the claimant: (1) duty to identify inferred claims, (2) duty to consider all reasonable legal theories, and (3) duty to maximize benefits. In other words, VA has several duties to apply the rules to the facts in a case in whatever way provides the most generous benefits allowed by the law.

These duties do not mean that VA has to look at every possible combination of rules and facts that may be even remotely possible. VA, however, has to review the entire record and apply the applicable provisions of law that are reasonably raised by the evidence. In addition, whether or not new claims are identified, VA must also review the diagnostic codes for the code or combination of codes that results in the highest benefit for the claimant.

Overall, in creating the duty to assist Congress recognized that VA raters are better trained and more experienced with the rules for obtaining benefits than the average claimant. VA must look for claims and grant awards based on all the evidence in the C-file whether or not the claimant asked for the specific benefit. This is a very good reason for claimants to provide as much information as possible when submitting applications or responding to VA requests.

For A Complete Guide To VA Disability Claims and to find out more about your potential VA disability case and how to obtain favorable VA Rating Decision! Visit: VA-Claims.org

For Cases & Decisions that Could Save Your VA Service-Connected Claims! Visit: VAClaims.org ~ A Non-Profit Non Governmental Agency

What Disabled Veterans Must Know About Compliance with VA Procedures

Compliance with VA Procedures

A key legal requirement for all claimants to be aware of is that VA must follow its own procedures, specifically including the M21-1MR, in deciding a claim.  The U.S. Supreme Court has stated that, “[w]here the rights of individuals are affected, it is incumbent upon agencies to follow their own procedures.  This is so even where the internal procedures are possibly more rigorous than otherwise would be required” by statute or regulation.  Morton v. Ruiz, 415 U.S. 199, 235 (1974).  This is important when VA takes a “short cut” to save time or effort and then denies a claim.

The law is that even if a regulation requires less effort than a procedure used by VA in similar circumstances, VA cannot pick and choose when to follow its own rules and when not to do so.  See Castellano v. Shinseki, 25 Vet. App. 146, 151 n.2 (2011) (“[T]he Secretary must adhere to his own policies when adjudicating veterans’ claims.” (citing Morton, 415 U.S. at 235 (1974)).  Yet, 38 C.F.R. § 19.5 states that “[t]he Board is not bound by Department manualscirculars, or similar administrative issues.”

A claimant can and should identify any failure to follow the M21-1MR procedures that are relevant to his or her claim.  Compliance with the M21-1MR can also be reasonably raised by the record such that the Board should address the issue.  See Schafrath v. Derwinski, 1 Vet. App. 589, 593 (1991) (Board must discuss provisions of law and regulation where they are made “potentially applicable through the assertions and issues raised in the record”).

A regional office’s failure to follow the M21-1MR and the Board’s failure to identify such issues frustrates judicial review, warranting remand.  See Tucker v. West, 11 Vet. App. 369, 374 (1998) (where “the Board has incorrectly applied the law, failed to provide an adequate statement of its reasons or bases for its determinations, or where the record is otherwise inadequate, a remand is the appropriate remedy.”); Allday v. Brown, 7 Vet. App. 517, 527 (1995) (holding that the Board’s statement “must be adequate to enable claimant to understand the precise basis for the Board’s decision, as well as to facilitate review in this Court”).

For A Complete Guide To VA Disability Claims and to find out more about your potential VA disability case and how to obtain favorable VA Rating Decision!

Visit: VA-Claims.org

For Cases & Decisions that Could Save Your VA Service-Connected Claims!

Visit: VAClaims.org ~ A Non-Profit Non Governmental Agency

How Veterans Can Successfully File a VA Compensation Claim

There are two ways to file a VA compensation claim: print the 526EZ and mail/fax it, or submit it electronically through VA and DoD’s eBenefits web portal. Most Veterans opt for the former, cross their fingers, and hope for the best. But unless you are just leaving the military, with well-documented and easily accessible service treatment records, this isn’t the best approach.

Intent to file
The Intent to File is required, but here’s why it’s a good thing: It immediately establishes your effective date for pay purposes. Best of all, it only takes a few minutes to complete online in eBenefits. (You can submit your Intent to File online in eBenefits here)

We know that it may take you some time to gather all the evidence you need to support your fully developed claim (FDC), such as your service treatment records, private treatment records and DBQs, and written witness/buddy/commander/spouse/lay statements. The Intent to File for a VA compensation claim lets VA know that you are planning to file a claim, and it locks in your “backpay” date. You then have one year to complete your claim application.

What info does VA need from me?
To receive VA disability compensation, you must meet three criteria: an event in service that caused or aggravated a disability or illness; a current diagnosis of a medical disability or illness; and a medical opinion connecting the two (the latter as a result/because of the former).

Event in service is something that happened in service that caused or aggravated your current disability. For example, you fractured an ankle in service and now have arthritis in that ankle. Or, you served in Vietnam, were exposed to Agent Orange, and now have a disease that is considered presumptive for Agent Orange exposure;
A current VA or private doctor’s diagnosis showing that you have a medical condition related to the service event; and
A doctor’s opinion that the event in service and current diagnosis are connected. This is called the nexus. Unless the connection is obvious through your medical records, this opinion, or nexus, will usually come from your VA-scheduled Compensation & Pension (C&P) exam. For presumptive illnesses, VA presumes the connection between the documented event in service and the current diagnosed illness. In this case the nexus is established by law.
Without all three of these items, a VA compensation claim can’t be granted. It’s like a three legged stool – without any one of these legs, the stool will fall over. If you provide evidence of the first two items but not the third, VA will schedule you for a C&P exam to determine a doctor’s opinion for the third. Be aware that just because a doctor’s opinion is requested on service connection that that doesn’t mean a doctor will agree that your current condition is related to your service.

Write a statement in support of your claim
When filing your VA compensation claim, include a VA Form 21-4138. This is called the Statement in Support of Claim. It’s important to write a separate paragraph for each disability you are claiming. It’s equally important to explain how the event in service (be specific) affects your current disability or symptoms related to your injury or illness. Provide every piece of evidence from the event that you can think of, such as personnel records, award narratives, pictures, medical records, unit profiles, prescriptions, etc. If you don’t think this event is in your service personnel or medical records, find someone you served with to fill out a form to provide their witness statement to the event. While a witness statement alone usually is not enough to grant a claim, it can be combined with other evidence to strengthen a claim for service connection.

Your statement is considered evidence, just like your military or treatment records, and the rater will use it to make the decision. It also tells the rating team where to look in your records, and the timeframe for information to validate your claim.

Include medical records
VA can access treatment records from other VA and military medical facilities, but don’t assume that “VA has everything it needs.” Remember above: VA and military records are just one leg of the three-legged stool.

If you have your service medical records, include them as evidence. It also helps VA if you include where it was that you’ve been treated for your medical conditions on your application (name of treatment facility). You should also highlight the pages and passages that refer to your medical conditions, such as lab results and diagnoses, which may eliminate weeks or even months of processing time. Providing all of this information with your claim will help the rating team process your claim more quickly.

If you don’t have your service records, VA will request them from your military branch archives, but this can take several weeks or more. If you don’t have them and would prefer to request them yourself, contact the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) here.

Compensation and Pension: Your C&P exam
Even if you submit all of your medical records, you may still be asked to go to a C&P exam. This is not a typical doctor’s exam. You won’t be diagnosed or treated, and in some cases, the doctor may just review your records—including any statements in your file—and ask you a few questions. While this may seem unusual for an exam, the doctor is actually filling in a Disability Benefits Questionnaire (DBQ), which the rater will use to determine if your claim can be granted, and at what percentage.

So, in the exam, be honest and specific with your answers. For example, if the doctor asks about an injury, instead of saying “I hurt my back in the service,” you should say “I was getting something off of a shelf in the warehouse and fell off a ladder. There is an accident report. My back has given me problems ever since.” This allows the doctor to connect an incident in service to the current disability, and the DBQ the doctor submits will contain an opinion that your disability is either more- or less-likely than not connected to your service. That’s the third leg of the stool.

What if I need help?
If all of this sounds like Greek to you, then you should either follow our helpful tutorials on YouTube that walk you through the VA compensation claim application process, or enlist the help (FREE) of a Veterans Service Organization (VSO) to assist you.

Then what?
Once you or your VSO has submitted your VA compensation claim, you can check on its current status in eBenefits (hover over “Manage,” then click on “View or update your Compensation and Pension (C&P) claim”). On the status page, you can view more detailed information by clicking on the claim date.

It’s important to note that, once you have submitted your fully-developed claim online, or by mail/fax, you are telling VA that you have no further evidence or information to submit. Submitting un-requested evidence or information after it has been submitted will cause a delay in processing.

Did you know?
By providing a more complete picture of your situation to the rating team when you file your VA compensation claim application, you not only make it easier for the raters to find your information and process your claim, but you also increase your chances of having your claim granted. Although it will take a little more effort on your part, it can pay off with faster VA processing, and will increase your chances of a successful claim the first time.

Remember, the rating team—most of whom are Veterans just like you—is on your side, but you can help them by including everything they need to approve your claim.

For A Complete Guide To VA Disability Claims and to find out more about your potential VA disability case and how to obtain favorable VA Rating Decision!

Visit: VA-Claims.org

For Cases & Decisions that Could Save Your VA Service-Connected Claims!

Visit: VAClaims.org ~ A Non-Profit Non Governmental Agency

VA to Redesign Benefits Program for Service Members Leaving the Military Service

VA plans to redesign the Benefits Delivery at Discharge program to enable service members to receive disability benefit decisions the day after their discharge. The redesigned program will go into effect October 1.

VA is dedicated to ensuring that Veterans get the benefits they have earned and deserve as quickly and accurately as possible. Changes to the Benefits Delivery at Discharge program will increase VA’s ability to conduct exams, review medical evidence, and process ratings prior to a service member’s release from active duty. In most cases, VA benefits decisions will be provided the day after discharge.

Service member’s using the program can submit their claim from 90 to 180 days prior to discharge from active duty. Previously, the submission time was 60 to 180 days before discharge. This extra time is needed to ensure medical exams can be conducted and evaluated, and claims rated prior to separation. To participate, the service member must be available to attend the VA examination(s) for 45 days from the date of claim submission.

In order to focus resources on those who participate in the redesigned program, the Quick Start program will be eliminated. Quick Start allowed service members who did not meet the Benefits Delivery at Discharge window, to submit their claim and evidence up until one day before discharge from active duty.

While service members can still submit their claim with 89 days or less prior to discharge, the claims will not be processed until after their separation. These claims will be processed as either a fully developed claim or traditional claim as appropriate.

More information on the Benefits Delivery at Discharge program is available on the website, or at military Transition Assistance Program (TAP) offices.

For A Complete Guide To VA Disability Claims and to find out more about your potential VA disability case and how to obtain favorable VA Rating Decision!

Visit: VA-Claims.org

For Cases & Decisions that Could Save Your VA Service-Connected Claims!

Visit: VAClaims.org ~ A Non-Profit Non Governmental Agency

VA Apprenticeship Program to Train, Employ Veterans to Assist other Veterans in Properly Filing for VA benefits

Veterans service organizations (VSOs) play a major role as advocates for the Veteran community, and as partners with VA, to ensure this nation’s Veterans receive the benefits they have earned. An important part of this partnership is to support VSOs as they train their advisors on the benefit process.

VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) program recently entered in to an agreement with Paralyzed Veterans of America to participate in an apprenticeship program to train Paralyzed Veterans’ employees on how to assist Veterans to file for and obtain their benefits. A similar program is currently in effect with the Disabled American Veterans organization.

Paralyzed Veterans is an advocate for quality health care, spinal cord injury and disease research, VA benefits, and civil rights for Veterans and all people with disabilities. As a service oriented non-profit organization, Paralyzed Veterans employs national service officers to serve Veterans.

“The apprenticeship program with Paralyzed Veterans will put much needed resources into communities nationwide to work with our Veterans and assist them in applying for benefits,” stated Tim Johnston, supervisor for rehabilitation services at VR&E. “This not only gives those accepted into the program a skill, but ensures that Veterans in communities, large and small, have access to trained professionals who can help them understand the process and apply for those benefits they have earned and deserve.”

In a memorandum of understanding between the two organizations, Paralyzed Veterans will provide a 36-month on-the-job training program to qualified Veterans who are selected for the apprenticeship program. Most of the apprenticeship is supervised work with some classroom and on-line learning. These are full-time national service officer positions.

Pay during the apprenticeship is supplemented by the VR&E program. For the first 12 months, those selected for the program are paid $2,890 per month by Paralyzed Veterans, and an additional $651 from VA as a training allowance. In the remainder of the apprenticeship, Paralyzed Veterans pays $3,166.66, and VR&E pays $375 per month for training. The VR&E training allowance to the Veteran is tax-free. VA also pays for the training and necessary supplies.

Selection for the program generally comes from two sources. Paralyzed Veterans may notify VR&E that they have a candidate in mind, or a VA vocational rehabilitation counselor can recommend someone for the program.

The current memorandum of understanding will be in effect until May 2021.

How to apply

To be considered for this program, you must be receiving services from VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment  program. If you are not receiving services from the VR&E program, but would like to, you will need to apply.

To apply to VR&E, please go to eBenefits and click on Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment under Apply.  You may also submit a completed application (VAF 28-1900) at the local VA Regional or outbased office, or mail the completed application to the closest regional office. Remember: not all Veterans are eligible for VR&E benefits, but to become eligible, you must have a service-connected disability of 10 percent or more.

Next, after establishing eligibility, you must also be determined entitled for services under VR&E. Entitlement is based on the Veteran having an employment handicap affecting their ability to obtain and maintain employment. It is after you have been found entitled and you have had an opportunity(ies) to meet with your vocational rehabilitation counselor that you will discuss your interest in the apprenticeship program. If the apprenticeship program seems like a good fit, the counselor may recommend you for the program. Additionally, there must be a need within the local Paralyzed Veterans of America office for a trainee.

Paralyzed Veterans may also notify VR&E that they have a candidate in mind. This candidate must also be receiving VR&E services, or they will need to go through the process explained above.

If you have any further questions, please contact your local VR&E regional office

For A Complete Guide To VA Disability Claims and to find out more about your potential VA disability case and how to obtain favorable VA Rating Decision!

Visit: VA-Claims.org

For Cases & Decisions that Could Save Your VA Service-Connected Claims!

Visit: VAClaims.org ~ A Non-Profit Non Governmental Agency

How Veterans Can File a Notice of Disagreement on their VA Compensation Claim

If you disagree with the decision VA made on your disability compensation claim, your first step is to formally tell VA that you disagree.

I received my rating and it’s wrong

“I received my rating and it’s wrong” is a statement our call center agents hear every day. You may think that VA shouldn’t have denied your claim, that you should have received a higher percentage, or that the effective date was wrong, but the odds are against it. That’s not to say that VA never makes a mistake, but an overwhelming majority of the time VA makes the correct decision based on the evidence available. In fact, VA’s issue-rating accuracy is 95 percent.

This high level of accuracy is in part because most of the decision-making is now automated. Medical information is input by the rater, and the rating for each issue is calculated and justification is provided.

So, if you aren’t happy with your rating, first carefully read your notification letter and rating decision. These documents should explain, issue-by-issue, why you received your rating, and what is needed for the next higher rating. It should also explain what the effective date is and why. If VA did not service connect your requested condition, the decision letter explains why the condition was not service connected.

If you have questions about your rating decision you can always go to your local Veterans Service Organization (VSO), sit down with a representative at your local VA office, or call the VA National Call Center at 800-827-1000. They can explain your rating so that you can decide what to do next.

If you’ve reviewed the claim decision and still think VA is wrong, you should provide additional evidence to support your condition(s) with your NOD. The claim decision becomes certified after 30 days, but it isn’t final until one year after the date of the decision. You can file a Notice of Disagreement at any time up to one year from the date of decision.

Submitting the Notice of Disagreement

To file the NOD, submit the VA-Form 21-0958, Notice of Disagreement that was included with your claim decision. This is your chance to tell VA how you feel the decision is wrong. If you don’t feel confident enough to do this on your own, your VSO can help you.

The NOD form contains blocks for each issue of contention (the medical conditions for which you filed the claim), for example, knee condition or kidney stones. Only list the conditions on the NOD where you disagree with the rating. For example, if you were rated for three conditions and only disagree with one decision, only list the decision you disagree with. Then check the block indicating what you disagree with (service connection, the rating level, or effective date).

The most important section is the narrative to explain why you feel VA incorrectly decided your claim. Don’t leave this blank. It’s entirely possible that VA missed something, and if you don’t point it out, VA will never know. Tell your story, but be clear and concise. If you need more space, add additional pages and documentation, such as private medical records, to make your point.

As explained above, there are three primary issues with your claim decision that you can disagree with: service connection, effective date and evaluation of disability (rating percentage). There is also an option for “other” if these are not appropriate.

  • Service Connection: If your claim came back “not service-connected,” explain why you think the condition should have been service connected. Was it first diagnosed in service? Was there an injury in service? Is this a condition that was caused or aggravated by a service-connected condition? For example, a service-connected knee condition can lead to back strain. The back issues are then secondary to the knee condition and can be service connected. Be specific and provide the date of the initial injury or illness if possible. That helps the rater find the documentation needed in your service treatment or personnel records. If you have copies of official documentation that prove an event happened in service, for example the write-up for a medal, attach a copy. Most illnesses are compensable if diagnosed within a year of leaving active duty. You may have to include private treatment records to prove this. Buddy statements can provide additional evidence. If there is no connection between your illness and your time in service, VA can’t legally provide benefits.
  • Effective Date of Award: Usually the date of award is the date of claim for that specific issue, but there are instances where the date could be earlier. Some of these include, the date after your discharge for claims filed within a year of leaving active duty; date an Intent to File was received by the VA; or the date of diagnosis or eligibility for a higher level of compensation for increases. Your local Veterans Service Organization can help you determine if the effective date should have been earlier.
  • Evaluation of Disability: The most common area of disagreement is the evaluation of disability. The rating levels are determined by law and are based on your symptoms. In your claim decision letter, look for the description of the rating and the associated legal reference. This reference leads to a listing that shows what symptoms match the rating level for your condition. If you have documented symptoms or test results from your doctor that show you should be in a higher rating level, explain this in your narrative and add copies of the documentation to your submission.

You may want to read over the Schedule for Rating Disabilities (38 CFR, Part 1), which provides all of the information on how claims are rated, how VA math works (38 CFR, Part 1, Section 4.25), and how percentages are based on your symptoms (38CFR, Part 1, Subpart B). Warning: the CFR is dense with legalese and medical information, and it’s why we recommend you ask a VSO for assistance.

If your symptoms don’t meet the next higher rating level, VA cannot increase your rating. In this case, you are better off keeping the current rating, and if your symptoms worsen, you can always file a claim for an increase later.

The NOD also asks you to make a choice between the Decision Review Officer (DRO) process, or the traditional appellate review process.

In the DRO review, an experienced rater will conduct an in-depth review of your claim and any new evidence that you provide. The DRO may schedule you for an additional compensation and pension exam (C&P), or contact you with follow up questions.

In the traditional appellate process, a VA rating specialist will review the prior rating and any new evidence to see if a clear and unmistakable error (CUE) was made on the previous decision.

In both processes, a new decision can be made based upon the evidence of record. If you are uncertain about which option is best for you, check with your VSO for advice.

So what happens next?

After the DRO reviews your file, NOD, and any new evidence, they will make a decision. They may either provide a new rating or continue the current rating decision. Then, you will receive a Statement of the Case that describes the information that was reviewed and how the DRO came to their decision.

If you disagree with the new decision, the next step would be to file a VA Form 9 and appeal to the Board of Veterans Appeals. Depending on the complexity of your case, the formal appeal process can take several years (and every time you submit new evidence before a decision increases that wait). It is much better to ensure you provide all of the information and evidence to tell your story during the NOD phase since it will resolve your issue the fastest.

For A Complete Guide To VA Disability Claims and to find out more about your potential VA disability case and how to obtain favorable VA Rating Decision!

Visit: VA-Claims.org

For Cases & Decisions that Could Save Your VA Service-Connected Claims!

Visit: VAClaims.org ~ A Non-Profit Non Governmental Agency

VA Compensation 101: What Exactly is VA Compensation?

As a social media administrator for VA’s Benefits Administration, I read thousands of comments (yep, all of them) each week from thousands of people scattered across the country. It’s no surprise that the most-talked about VA benefit is VA compensation, but it is sometimes surprising that the words we use to talk about this benefit are different from the words used by those in our social media community. Even more surprising is that many don’t fully understand the intent, purpose or process behind this benefit.

That’s on us, I guess, that we need to reach more of you to better explain what compensation ishow it works, and who can get it. In general terms, this blog intends to do just that. Or, more loosely: here’s the skinny, the straight talk, with no PR, no spin, no BS.

Ready?

So, what is compensation?

It’s money, obviously. But there’s more to it than that. People often say it’s their “monthly check,” their “service-connected payment,” “their disability payment,” or even simply their “benefits.” These are actual words I often see, but even they don’t effectively describe what compensation is, nor do they accurately portray which specific benefit—among dozens VBA administers—they’re referring to.

There are several types of VA compensation, but I’ve learned that most people are most often referring to disability compensation. When referring to disability compensation, people most often say “my claim,” “my money,” “my benefits,” or “my check.” Sometimes they even say “my pension,” which is, itself, an entirely different and unrelated VA benefit.

Alright, I’ve dragged you along long enough, What IS VA compensation?

  • First of all, it’s taxpayer money. Every year, VA makes a budget request for the following year. In simple terms for just VBA, we look at what we’re currently paying to administer VA benefits, including how much we’re paying in compensation to the millions of Veterans on the rolls, then we analyze how much more we’ll need based on many factors, mostly that there are more Veterans now accessing and receiving and applying to more VA benefits. However, VA’s budget does not limit what we can pay in benefits.
  • Secondly, to safeguard taxpayer money, disability compensation is a process. There are federal laws that govern how we, the VBA, can administer it. This is a protection to the taxpayer to prevent abuse and fraud.
  • Next, maybe most importantly—and the part you care about most: VA disability compensation is a tax-free, monthly payment to eligible Veterans for the injuries and medical conditions they incurred/acquired/caught/received or aggravated while in active military service.
  • But VA compensation is also an acknowledgement. An acknowledgement implies acceptance from the federal government that what happened to you in service can or may affect you after service. And that’s a broad, vague statement. Thus, VA compensation makes up for the potential loss of civilian wages or civilian working time you’d miss as a result of, or for tending to (appointments, etc.), your injuries/medical conditions. It’s basically the government saying, “Hey, thanks for your service. You sacrificed your health for America, so we accept that your reduced health may impact your ability to live as comfortably as you would had you not gotten hurt/sick.”
  • Lastly, VA compensation is not income. I’m going to say that again: VA compensation is not income. It is not a replacement or substitution for civilian employment, and it is not a military retirement. Except in uncommon situations, VA does not pay you to not find or hold civilian employment. Compensation makes up for; it doesn’t replace.

Those are the basics. That’s what it is. In my next blog, I’m going to lay it straight for the questions that would logically follow: Who is eligible, How does it work, and What do I need to do? If you like this approach and you want to see more blogs like it, shoot me some suggestions in the comments below, or hit me up on the VBA Facebook page where I chat with Veterans everyday.

For A Complete Guide To VA Disability Claims and to find out more about your potential VA disability case and how to obtain favorable VA Rating Decision!

Visit: VA-Claims.org

For Cases & Decisions that Could Save Your VA Service-Connected Claims!

Visit: VAClaims.org ~ A Non-Profit Non Governmental Agency

VA Claims Corner: The Importance of VA Medical Exams

Remember when you were in the military and your commanding officer or staff NCO threatened to “write you up” because you failed to get your vaccination or resolve another medical issue near deployment time? Back then, you didn’t have to be as proactive with your medical appointments because safety nets were in place (thanks to your gunny/first sergeant/senior master sergeant/chief petty officer!) to make sure you made it to sick call.

The transition from military to civilian life can make remembering to attend your scheduled medical appointments a little tricky – especially if you’re in the middle of a job search or attending college for the first time. However, it’s important you know that making your scheduled VA exams is essential to accurately processing your claim. VA assesses your exam results when determining service connection for your claimed medical condition. These medical examinations are scheduled by VA and are performed by either a VA physician or contracted physician. It’s important to note these exams aren’t always required to evaluate your medical conditions; however, in instances when they are needed, it’s important that you make every effort to show up!

During my time as a Veterans Service Representative, I would periodically see cases where a Veteran failed to report to his or her medical appointment. While we certainly understand that life can get in the way, missing an exam can have huge ramifications to your benefits to include:

  1. Denial of your original or reopened claim, or claim for increase. When you fail to report for an exam, your claim will be rated based on the evidence available in your record. This could be detrimental to your original claim because the exam results could provide the necessary evidence needed to satisfy service connection. In reopened claims, the exam results may provide the new and material evidence needed to overturn a prior VA decision or, in the case of a claim for increase, show that your condition has worsened.
  2. Reduction or termination of your current benefits. When you fail to report for a reexamination of a running entitlement, VA, under law, is required to issue you a notice that proposes to either reduce or terminate your monthly benefit if an examination is needed to maintain a current rating.
  3. Delay in the decision of your pending claim. Examination requests are in high demand. Rescheduling can delay the processing of your claim and a final decision from VA.

In order to avoid these potential pitfalls, follow these simple tips:

  1. Keep your scheduled exam whenever possible.
  2. Can’t make it? Tell VA immediately by phone, online, or in person. We may be able to reschedule your exam date.
  3. Make sure your address and phone number is up-to-date in eBenefits. VA will attempt to notify you of an exam by letter and telephone. I’ve personally seen countless amounts of returned mail because applicants moved without notifying VA. The easiest and quickest way to update your address and telephone number is through eBenefits.

More information on this topic can be found in 38 Code of Federal Regulation 3.655.

As always, if you still have questions, a VA representative or a Veterans Service Organization may be able to help.

For A Complete Guide To VA Disability Claims and to find out more about your potential VA disability case and how to obtain favorable VA Rating Decision!

Visit: VA-Claims.org

For Cases & Decisions that Could Save Your VA Service-Connected Claims!

Visit: VAClaims.org ~ A Non-Profit Non Governmental Agency

VA Claims Corner: What to Expect at Your C&P Exam

When I attended my first compensation or pension (C&P) medical examination several years ago, I didn’t really know what to expect  — I had little information so I was unprepared, and a little anxious before and during my appointment.

I don’t think I’m alone. For some of us, attending a C&P exam for the first time can be stressful — they’re very different from the exams we’ve had in the military or private sector. So it’s understandable how going through an unfamiliar process like a C&P exam for the first time, or even the second time, may cause anxiety.

When I was in the Marine Corps, I found having a bit of intel before entering any situation helpful in alleviating my fear of the unknown.

Here’s what I found helpful:

  1. Your examiner doesn’t decide whether or not your condition is service connected – VBA claims processors do. C&P exams are tools used by claims processors to either collect missing evidence or clarify information in your claim. A complete C&P exam is just one part of the complete body of evidence from which claims processors must consider when making their decision.
  2. Keep in mind, that not all our contentions will require VA examinations. In some cases, claims processors may have enough evidence in hand to make a decision without the need for a C&P examination.
  3. If you’re scheduled for an exam, it’s important that you make every effort to show up! Missing a scheduled exam could adversely affect your claim. You can read more about this in my previous blog ‘Claims Corner: the importance of VA exams.’

As always, if you still have questions, a VA representative or a Veterans Service Organization may be able to help.

For A Complete Guide To VA Disability Claims and to find out more about your potential VA disability case and how to obtain favorable VA Rating Decision!

Visit: VA-Claims.org

For Cases & Decisions that Could Save Your VA Service-Connected Claims!

Visit: VAClaims.org ~ A Non-Profit Non Governmental Agency

VA Pension Provides Support for Qualifying Veteran Survivors

When Veterans and their family members think of VA benefits – the first thoughts that typically come to mind are VA’s educational benefitscompensation and health care benefits, or home loan benefits. Many don’t realize that VA also offers a benefit that can assist qualifying war-time Veterans and their survivors. As our country’s Veteran and surviving spouse population grows older and ailments worsen, it’s important for Veterans and their families to know about the benefits available to them from VA.

VA pension is an income-based benefit offered to qualifying Veterans and their survivors. The amount of pension payable is based on the Veteran’s or survivor’s family income. VA may be able to deduct out-of-pocket medical expenses from income, including but not limited to amounts paid to nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and for in-home care. Additionally, if VA determines a Veteran or surviving spouse is housebound or requires the aid and attendance of another person, he or she may be entitled a higher rate of VA Pension.

Qualifications

  1. With some exceptions, the Veteran must have served on active duty:
  • Veterans who served on or before September 7, 1980 must have 90 continuous days of service with at least one of those days during wartime
  • Veterans who served after September 7, 1980, must have served at least 24 months or the full period they were called up
  1. Veterans must either be:
  • age 65 or older or
  • permanently and totally disabled

***VA assumes a Veteran to be permanently and totally disabled if the Veteran is a patient in a nursing home or found disabled by the Social Security Administration. There are no disability or age criteria for survivors.

  1. Veterans and surviving spouses must meet income and net worth criteria.

Applying

Though there are various ways to apply for VA pension, the fastest way to apply is online through https://www.ebenefits.va.gov/ebenefits/vonapp.

If you still have questions, a VA representative or Veterans service organization may be able to help. You can also comment below!

For A Complete Guide To VA Disability Claims and to find out more about your potential VA disability case and how to obtain favorable VA Rating Decision!

Visit: VA-Claims.org

For Cases & Decisions that Could Save Your VA Service-Connected Claims!

Visit: VAClaims.org ~ A Non-Profit Non Governmental Agency